Thursday, February 25th, 2021

Wi-Fi 6E Explained: It’s Here yet Still a Blur. No Need to Hold Your Breath

Asus GT AXE11000 vs GT AX11000 Routers
Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E: The Asus GT-AX11000 Wi-Fi 6 router (top) the Asus GT-AXE11000 Wi-Fi 6E counterpart.

By now, you must have heard of Wi-Fi 6E — I mentioned it briefly in this piece about Wi-Fi 6 as a whole. If not, well, you’ll learn all that matters about this new Wi-Fi standard here.

Dong’s note: I first published this piece on May 22, 2020, and updated it on February 6, 2021, to add additional relevant information.

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Wi-Fi 6E: It’s Wi-Fi 6 with an additional 6GHz band

In a nutshell, Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6 that operates in the new 6GHz frequency band instead of the traditional 2.4GHz or 5GHz band.

Other than that, it has all the characteristics of Wi-Fi 6, including orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA)and Target Wake Time (TWT).

The base speed remains too. Generally, you’ll get 600Mbps per stream via an 80MHz channel or 1200Mbps via a 160MHz channel.

So then why do we even need Wi-Fi 6E, you might wonder.

Why do we need 6E?

We don’t. We want it.

Wi-Fi 6 needs to operate in the 160MHz, or at least 80MHz, channel width to deliver top speeds.

There’s only so much space in the 5GHz spectrum. We only get a couple of 160MHz channels out of it — only two to be exact — and they all encompass the span of narrower (40MHz and 20MHz) channels and require the problematic DFS spectrum.

Since many existing older Wi-Fi clients only use 40MHz or 20MHz channels, all home Wi-Fi networks have to struggle between compatibility and performance.

wi fi 6E Bands
The 6GHz band is much wider than the 5GHz and 2.4GHz ones, and it doesn’t need to use DFS channels.

Wi-Fi 6E deals with this spectrum shortage by using an entire frequency band, opening its hardware to more channels, including seven 160MHz channels or fourteen 80MHz channels.

As a result, Wi-Fi 6E devices will operate freely without the need to accommodate older Wi-Fi standards or spectrum regulations.

In other words, with Wi-Fi 6E, your devices don’t need to use 20MHz, 40MHz (which are also available in larger numbers), or even 80MHz channels. On top of that, you won’t have to be concerned about the potential sporadic, brief disconnections caused by radar signals if you live near an airport.

To understand this concept, imagine if a Wi-Fi band is a freeway, then channels are lanes, and we have this crude analogy: The 2.4GHz includes only small lanes for bikes; the 5GHz uses wider lanes for cars, buses, and trucks, and the 6GHz (Wi-Fi 6E) only has special tracks for a high-speed rail system.

And that brings us to the main shortcoming of Wi-Fi 6E.

Wi-Fi 6E vs. Wi-Fi 6: New hardware required

To use the new 6GHz band, you’ll need a new broadcaster (a router) and clients (phones, laptops, etc.) that support it. It’s like you can’t drive a car or ride a bike on rail tracks. None of the existing Wi-Fi equipment, including the latest Wi-Fi 6 routers, will work with this band.

(Initially, it was rumored that some new Wi-Fi 6 routers already have Wi-Fi 6E-ready hardware, which can be activated via firmware updates. However, by the end of 2020, this proved to be completely false.)

This shortcoming is the same as the move from single band (2.4GHz) to dual-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz) that took place back when Wi-Fi 4 debuted in 2009.

A new type of tri-band equipment

Similar to the dual-band case, for backward compatibility, you can expect any Wi-Fi 6E-capable router also to have a 5GHz band, and likely a 2.4GHz band, built-in. In other words, it will be a tri-band router.

Yes, we have existing tri-band broadcasters — like the Asus GT-AX11000, Netgear RAX200, or TP-Link AX11000 — but they all have one 2.4GHz band and two 5GHz bands, mostly to address the bandwidth issue.

In other words, traditional tri-band broadcasters of Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 standards have an additional 5Ghz band. A Wi-Fi 6E broadcaster needs all three bands (2.4Ghz +5GHz +6GHz) to be compatible with all existing and future devices.

(Come to think about it. We might find quad-band routers in the future — those supporting Wi-Fi 6E with an additional 5GHz or 6GHz band.)

Since a Wi-Fi connection occurs in a single band at a time, up to late 2020, we only needed dual-band clients (2.4GHz + 5GHz). With the 6GHz band’s availability, future Wi-Fi receivers will likely also be tri-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 6GHz).

The reason is for the 6GHz band to be successfully adopted, networking vendors need to keep devices compatible, regardless of the Wi-Fi frequencies being available at any given time. And incorporating multiple bands within the hardware is the only way to achieve that.

Wi-Fi 6E vs. other Wi-Fi standards

DesignationStandardCommercially 
Available
Top Single-stream SpeedOperating ChannelsFrequency BandsStatus
N/A802.11b199911Mbps20MHz2.4GHzObsolete
N/A802.11a200054Mbps20MHz5GHzObsolete
N/A802.11g200354Mbps20 MHz2.4GHzObsolete
Wi-Fi 4802.11n or Wireless N2009150Mbps20/40MHz2.4GHz and 5GHzLegacy
Wi-Fi 5802.11ac 2012433Mbps20/40/ 80MHz5GHzMainstream
N/A802.11ad2015Multi-Gig2.16GHz60 GHzLimited Use / Obsolete
Wi-Fi 6802.11ax20191200Mbps20/40/80/160MHz2.4GHz and 5GHzMainstream
Wi-Fi 6E802.11ax in 6GHz20211200Mbps20/40/80/160MHz6GHzLatest
Wi-Fi Standards in brief

Does Wi-Fi 6E have other shortcomings?

Yes. And the shorter range is likely one of them.

In radio broadcasting, higher frequencies always mean shorter ranges: FM and AM radio stations broadcast in frequencies much lower than Wi-Fi.

The 5GHz band clearly has a shorter range than that of the 2.4GHz one. So, the 6GHz band’s range will be behind that of the 5GHz band.

Of course, this is assuming that the 6GHz will use the same power level (dBm) as that of existing bands since higher power can compensate for the higher frequency.

But if the shorter range turns out to be true, Wi-Fi 6E will probably not be a good band to work as the backhaul in a mesh system unless you have an open space.

Another obvious shortcoming is the cost. Tri-band and quad-band hardware require more materials and sure will be more expensive. Again, keep in mind you need both broadcasters and clients of the same standard to enjoy Wi-Fi 6E.

Intel AX210 Wi-Fi 6E Module
This is the first Wi-Fi 6E module on the market, the Intel AX210NGW.

When will I see real Wi-Fi 6E hardware?

The move to Wi-Fi 6E has been quite fast. The Wi-Fi Alliance first introduced Wi-Fi 6E in early 2020. By April of the same year, FCC approved the use of the 6GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi.

And then, the first Wi-Fi 6E broadcasters are slated to be available for purchase in the first quarter of 2021, with Asus, Netgear, TP-Link, and others introducing their own. Like the case of Wi-Fi 6, you’ll find Wi-Fi 6E routers way before you can get yourself a Wi-Fi 6E client.

Keep in mind, though, that this standard will not be certified until mid-2021 or so. Until then, hardware from different vendors might not work (well) with one another. And it will take the certification for clients to be available.

Also, note that even though you can also upgrade existing computers to Wi-Fi 6E via the Intel AX210-based adapters, similar to the case of Wi-Fi 6, there’s no guarantee they will work with the new broadcasters right away, if at all. In fact, Intel won’t make the AX210 chip support the 6GHz band officially until late Spring of 2021.

(That proved to be the case in my testing of the GT-AXE11000, which, by the way, is the most expensive router from Asus.)

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That said, it’s safe to say with some effort, you’ll be able to experience Wi-Fi 6E sometime in 2021. How that experience turns out depends on many things, including firmware and software drivers on both sides (broadcasters and clients).

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The takeaway

Wi-Fi 6E is indeed here. You’ll soon hear or have already heard a lot of rosy things about this standard. The new 6GHz band is a great marketing tool — who wouldn’t want faster Wi-Fi?

So, together with higher bandwidth, networking vendors will mention all sorts of snazzy references, like how Wi-Fi 6E is great for 8K video, VR, 5G, low-latency, gaming, and so on. Some of that might be true, but most will be just hype and exaggeration.

The truth is we won’t know how Wi-Fi 6E truly pans out till it’s fully out. And that will take time.

One thing is for sure: You won’t be able to use Wi-Fi 6E with any existing devices. So, realistically, 2022 is the likely earliest time when Wi-Fi 6E really plays a meaningful role in daily life.

When it comes to Wi-Fi, it’s always getting connected at the time of need and not having the latest and greatest that matters. And for the former, the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands will do for a long time.

Think about it, 5GHz has been out for more than a decade, and the 2.4GHz has never come even close to disappearing — it never will. The 6GHz will be the same. It’s an additional band that’s not meant to replace anything.

Here’s something interesting: As more devices support the new 6GHz bands, the two (2.4Ghz and 5GHz) will be less congested. So the addition of Wi-Fi 6E is a win-win for both new and old equipment alike.

That said, don’t hold your breath and wait for Wi-Fi 6E. Go ahead and get the equipment that serves your needs today. It’s always a good idea to give a new standard some time to fully mature before upgrading to it anyway.

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16 thoughts on “Wi-Fi 6E Explained: It’s Here yet Still a Blur. No Need to Hold Your Breath”

    • This depends on the environment, Bob, but in an open space, you can expect 50m at best. It’s definitely shorter than that of 5GHz. Keep in mind though, the range doesn’t just drop off entirely, the distance here means where it still provides a meaningful connection. More here.

      Reply
  1. SD 865+ mobile SoC are said to be compatible with Wifi 6E.
    So the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (SM-N986U), Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, Asus ROG Phone 3, OnePlus 8T, Lenovo Legion Phone Duel, and any other phones using it, should take advantage of it, as soon as base stations become available…

    Reply
    • Thanks for the info, Clement. By the time you can take advantage of that, though, you might have gotten a new phone already. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Hi Dong:
    A few clarifications.
    1. AM Radio broadcasts occur in kilohertz frequencies, not megahertz.
    2. OFDMA, MU-MIMO, 1024 QAM, and 6 GHz are all required for Wi-Fi 6E broadcasts. Further, the usable broadcast bandwidths for Wi-Fi 6E include 20Mhz, 40Mhz, 80Mhz and 160Mhz.
    3. In previous Wi-Fi standards, endpoints decided which Wi-Fi channel(s) to use. But, no more. Because the wireless access point should have the best view of local Wi-Fi airwave usage, the current Wi-Fi 6E host (WAP or router) decides which channel(s) the endpoint device will use.

    Reply
  3. Many current wifi6 chipsets are capable for 6GHz, that’s where the rumors came from, but they forgot one thing, does the FEM (or PA/LNA) in your routers support 6GHz? If no, that means NO.

    Reply
    • idk.. have u seen the mod to add pcie to the pi 4? yeah I’m just being pandentic because even a pin compatible upgrade then requires firmware mod and that’s probably blob and a bit esoteric if not entirely.

      possible yes
      probable probably not bug maybe

      also is broadcaster dongs term of did wifi adopt this

      it’s cringe

      Reply
  4. Great info Dong thank youi! I think it’s safe to say I will follow my common practice of giving technology time to mature. By the time we have stable and improved firmware it takes pretty much almost a year. Look at the recent high end wifi 6 routers. Now as of May netgear and asus both have released some nice firmware updates on improving their routers and adding features. Once we seen wifi 6e routers it would probably be a good idea to wait another year to see if even much hardware is out there to support it. All we know is that supporting hardware always takes so long to catch up. I mean we don’t even have much wifi 6 capable hardware out even today so it makes sense to wait. I am not holding my breath 🙂

    Reply
  5. Thank you for the information. If I was looking to upgrade to mesh network,

    Setup: 3600 sq ft 3 level house, r8000, wired bridge r7000 and extender. All on different floors, have dead spot issues, low signal. I do good amount of gaming, streaming, alot of wired and wireless devices, IOT with this information should I:

    Get best bang for your buck mesh (maybe wifi5 or wifi6) thinking that nighthawk small boxes. And upgrade everything to 6e in a year or 2.

    Just stick with what I have now and use custom firmware to adjust and go with 6E when available

    Is there any reason/advantage to get high end router and getting 6E 2nd router/satellites

    Thank you for any feedback

    Reply
    • We don’t know how Wi-Fi 6E is going to pan out, yet, Rich. But your current situation with multiple extenders like that is not ideal. Almost any mesh system will be better. Wired backhaul is the best way to go. Maybe start with this post.

      Reply
  6. Many current WiFi 6 routers are based off the Broadcom BCM6755 and BCM43684 radios – for example the Asus ZenWiFi XT8.The BCM6755 SoC spec page (https://www.broadcom.com/products/wireless/wireless-lan-infrastructure/bcm6755) seems to indicate support for WiFi 6E, “Expanded 6 GHz frequency coverage including spectrum up to 7125 MHz expected to become available under new regulatory rules.” Have any manufactuters said whether they would provide WiFi 6E support through a firmware update? It seems like the hardware would support it.

    I understand the perdictiment this puts manufacturers in, however I hope they’ll at least consider support through a firmware update. I’d even be open to a paid-for-license upgrade model where I pay a nominal fee to unlock WiFi 6E support.

    Anyways, have you heard anything in this regard?

    Reply
    • Yeap, B. That was my hope and initially, Asus kinda hinted that could be the case. Later on, though, they said it was a no no. My guess is the chips were released way before FCC approved the spectrum so they might not have had the correct specs. As for right now, vendors are quite firm on new hardware. But that might change, though unlikely. But I sure will update this post as I learn more.

      Reply
  7. I think the chart is potentially confusing since wifi6 uses 80/160mhz interchangeably based on the tier of hardware. AX1500/1800 Broadcom solutions for example have no access to 160mhz channels since the SoC doesn’t support it. The same case can be argued for the few wifi5 clients with 160mhz support.

    1×1 wifi6 is 600mbps on 1024-QAM(native) with 80mhz channels. 1200mbps with 160mhz
    1×1 wifi5 is 433mbps on 256-QAM(native)with 80mhz channels. 866.7mbps with 160mhz

    Just looks and potentially would indicate a bigger jump than it is I guess? Especially considering the limited channels on 5G and required DFS support.

    6E would have the valid argument if ratified to support 160mhz as a minimum spec, but I haven’t looked into that. Channel support isn’t an issue here, though.. 😀

    Reply
    • Agreed and thanks for the input, J. I’m trying to figure out how to make it more clear without being overly convoluted.

      Reply

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